On Friday 31st May, Professor Robert Morrison will be at BRLSI to deliver a talk on the Letters of Thomas de Quincey: Archives, Autobiography, and the Literature of Addiction.

Robert Morrison has spent much of the last five years in Bath, where he has been British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University. The primary focus of his research during this time has been finding hitherto unknown letters written by Thomas De Quincey and to date he has found almost three hundred.

The Letters of Thomas De Quincey is soon to be published in two volumes by Oxford University Press and ahead of the talk we asked Robert five questions on the subject of De Quincey, and Robert’s rather successful quest to unearth the letters.

Robert, did De Quincey write any letters from Bath?

Yes, remarkably, the first known De Quincey letter is written from Bath when he and his family were living in the city at Number 6, Green-Park-Buildings East, and when he was a student at Bath Grammar School. The letter is from March 1799 and addressed to his older sister Mary.

Who influenced his writing the most?

The poet William Wordsworth. De Quincey first read Wordsworth in Bath in 1799. He wrote a fan letter to the poet in 1803 and took up residence in Dove Cottage—Wordsworth’s former home in Grasmere—in 1809. Wordsworth is everywhere in De Quincey’s writings.

Did De Quincey’s addiction grow out of pain or illness?

De Quincey claimed that he first took opium to alleviate the agony of a toothache. But as he makes clear in his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), the drug’s ability to numb pain was initially swallowed up almost entirely by its ability to bestow pleasure. After a period of recreational use, however, De Quincey descended into what he called ‘the unimaginable hell’ of addiction.

Was he writing to family and friends?

De Quincey wrote letters to friends like Dorothy Wordsworth. He wrote often in later life to his three daughters. In many respects, though, his most interesting letters are to his publishers, where he provides vivid accounts of his sufferings, his debts, and his disappointments, as well as fascinating records of how hard he worked at writing well.

Do you think his reputation as a writer is growing?

Yes. De Quincey’s achievements as a biographer, a satirist, a crime fiction writer, and a literary critic are far more widely known today than they were even a few decades ago. But it is of course his writings on what we would now call addiction that have brought him the most notoriety. De Quincey’s accounts—especially in his letters—of the blights of addiction have terrible congruencies with the opioid crisis of today.

To book tickets for Robert Morrison’s upcoming talk:



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